Howard Finster: The Ordinary And Sacred

 “As for me, I’m just passin’ through this planet.”
— Howard Finster

Before my recent visit to Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), I had never heard of Howard Finster. Now, I know exactly how much I was missing.

If one tried to build a Howard Finster museum, it would have to be a pretty big building: in his creative lifetime, Finster finished over 47,000 numbered pieces, not including some early sculptures and art created during his childhood in rural Georgia. Finster’s art is hard to put in a category; he himself called it folk art, and placed himself as the head of the “Folk Art Church,” but others consider it important outsider and visionary art. Finster was an artist and craftsman before a visionary experience in 1976 in which he heard a voice that called him to create sacred art; from there, it was off the races. A 1983 Tonight Show appearance made him a national celebrity, featured in exhibitions in New York galleries and important museums, and his art even appeared on album covers by R.E.M and the Talking Heads.

4344793086_164a175dcdAirships, airplanes, cars, UFOs, trucks, castles… heaven looks pretty fun.

AVAM’s collection of Finster pieces is absolutely delightful; angels cavort, women pick fruit, clouds smile, sinners fall into the flames of Hell, workers build pyramid-temple mansions in Heaven, all surrounded by breathless, all-capitals preaching in quick, defined black ink. Finster’s voice is encouraging, apocalyptic, sure; his subject matter covers literally everything from George Washington to the bowels of Hell to Coca-Cola bottles, Cadillacs and Elvis Presley. The entire world was inspiration for Finster, it seemed, and he could use anything as a jumping-off point for a faith-filled statement or a religious revelation. A 1978 painting called “All Roads One Road Headed The Same Way,” showing Baptists, Methodists, “odd fellows” and “Presbeterians” all headed for the yellow-green, marble temples of heaven. His landscapes are surreal, real, fantastic and sci-fi all at the same time.

finster5Labels: “I SUFFER WITH ALL WHO SUFFER”, “THE RICH AND THE POOR GO IN MY BOOK ON THE SAME PAGE”,
“I SEEK TO HELP ALL UNBELIEVERS IN GOD”, “THERE IS NO LIVING THING THAT IS LEFT OUT OF MY DAILY PRAYERS”

One of my favorite things about Finster is his incessant labeling of everything in his paintings; you can almost hear his voice even if you’ve never heard it before, encouraging you to see things his way, to repent, to be catholic-with-a-small-c, to take an ordinary tree or person or bottle or button and find something sacred about it.

4344790830_7c5744ddbc(The tour guide at AVAM said that Finster would create these and hand them out on the street for people to color in.)

Take a look around you next time you’re out. What do the ordinary things around you say about your own faith? What would you say if you were Howard Finster?

(I could spend hours chronicling the current exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum, so we’re going to visit the artists there until mid-August, when the exhibit, called St. Francis to Finster, closes. Coming up: the artwork of Unarius and the mindscapes of Ingo Swann. Don’t miss it!)

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photo credit: Howard Finster Folk Art at the Krannert Art Museum (12) via photopin (license)
photo credit: Howard Finster Folk Art at the Krannert Art Museum (36) via photopin (license)

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